Horror Movies

THE INVESTIGATION. A horror according to Stanislaw Lem

Published in 1959, Stanislaw Lem’s The Investigation starts from an improbable, strange, and…

Krzysztof Walecki

11 May 2024

THE INVESTIGATION. A horror according to Stanislaw Lem

…incomprehensible situation, and then presents the efforts of a police investigator who cannot see the problem as unsolvable. Not only unsolvable, but without a culprit.

Where to look for one when all the clues in the case of surprisingly lively corpses point to genuine resurrections? Whom to accuse when bodies of recently deceased look as if they’ve moved overnight in provincial mortuaries and then simply disappear? However, the investigation must be conducted meticulously, focusing on even the smallest and seemingly insignificant clues, like cat corpses found near mortuaries or temperature differences at night when the incidents occurred. Perhaps Dr. Sciss is right in thinking that this case is suitable for scientists, but not necessarily for the police. But does his method of statistically comparing phenomena have any value beyond collecting and cataloging data? Can the conclusions drawn from them help Lieutenant Gregory in his investigation?

The Investigation Stanislaw Lem Marek Piestrak

Stanislaw Lem asks many questions but practically gives no answers. He creates a crime story that is on one hand overly realistic – listening to the conversations of the policemen, we feel as though we’ve been given the entire case documentation, all the facts, theories, and suspicions, and like Gregory, we’re trapped in the necessity of solving the mystery; on the other hand, the writer starts from a situation reminiscent of horror, suggesting a phenomenon of a fantastic nature. The element of the uncanny, reluctantly emphasized by Sciss, who prefers to analyze data rather than draw conclusions, translates into a sense of impossibility of reaching the truth. No wonder this story ends with only a probable, and perhaps false, hypothesis, avoiding delving into details – thus, it cannot be refuted. The attempt to touch the mystery, to know the unknowable, this time without Lem’s typical science fiction costume, has seen two screen adaptations – in 1973, Marek Piestrak filmed a movie of just under an hour, and almost a quarter of a century later, Waldemar Krzystek used the format of Television Theatre to tell the same story.

Piestrak, the future director of another adaptation of Lem’s novel, The Pilot Pirx’s Test (1978), from the very beginning strives to modernize The Investigation, both in terms of plot and production. Before the first dialogues, we hear Wlodzimierz Nahorny’s beat music, and Edward Klosinski‘s camera, clearly influenced by American films of the time, turns the TV production into something closer to cinema. The can of Coca-Cola in the hands of the main character in the first scene may be an exaggerated symbol of Western prosperity, but fortunately, the director quickly focuses on the story, trying to give it a faster pace than Lem’s, while retaining all the key elements of the novel. The investigating Gregory – as interpreted by Tadeusz Borowski – is a man consistently searching for any foothold and equally denying the possibility of a lack of logical or rather realistic solution. But Piestrak uses this character trait not to juxtapose two or even three different points of view, approaches to the case, philosophies, as Lem did, but to give the whole thing a conspiratorial tint.

The Investigation Stanislaw Lem Marek Piestrak

The case of moving and disappearing bodies in mortuaries near London begins to affect Gregory in a particular way – he sees a man in the subway who looks remarkably similar to one of the victims, leading to suspicion that it’s not the work of third parties, but rather a miracle, a resurrection. However, this man quickly disappears, leaving the policeman only with speculations. But how to explain that he seems to be followed by the peculiar Dr. Sciss (Jerzy Przybylski), who, although cooperating with Scotland Yard, is somewhat hostile to Gregory? Also, his superior, Senior Inspector Sheppard (Edmund Fetting), always knows exactly where to reach his man – whether it’s to the pub or to the doctor – as if he’s observing every step of the main character. Sheppard and Sciss are linked by a shared photo of a naked woman, not escaping Gregory’s notice. And so the policeman begins to piece it all together, although there’s no basis to suspect either of them of involvement in the case. Piestrak’s version tells of a dogged officer who is quicker to believe in a conspiracy than the actions of forces he doesn’t understand.

The first adaptation of The Investigation abandons the discussion of the unknowable in favor of an urban crime story, whose convention doesn’t entirely match Lem’s invented story. There are glimpses of existential unease from the original, mainly in the dialogues, but instead of focusing on the words, the director embellishes them with sensational staging (one of Gregory’s conversations with Sheppard takes place at a shooting range, and witness testimonies are shown in the form of black-and-white recordings). However, Piestrak isn’t afraid to introduce horror elements into his film – the plot certainly allows for it, although the literalness with which the future creator of The Wolf operates is surprising. In one scene, we see corpses rising from the coffin and inexorably approaching the terrified policeman. This shot is the same as the point of view of the paralyzed man from fear, but the director additionally enhances the effect with a red filter overlaid on the lens and slowed-down pace, making the movements of the corpse and its characterization eerie. A sample of what Piestrak will give us in his subsequent works, although not necessarily something that fits into Lem’s concept of horror.

The Investigation Stanislaw Lem Marek Piestrak

A completely different experience is the version by Waldemar Krzystek from 1997. Although lacking the cinematic flair of the previous adaptation, its strength lies in its consistency with the original book, focusing on the fascinating dialogue between characters and the sense of the protagonist’s inevitable defeat, who – aware of the extraordinary nature of the case – cannot distance himself, maniacally trying to connect mismatched elements. Krzystek, however, shows wisdom greater than Gregory’s (this time Mariusz Bonaszewski), removing unnecessary threads from the main plotline, which in one case leads to an incredible result.

There’s a scene in this film (it’s hard for me to call The Investigation a play, because honestly, only the TV camera gives a sense of being in Television Theatre) when played by Jerzy Gralek, Sheppard visits Gregory in his apartment, and their conversation is accompanied by strange noises, as if the floor is creaking. In the book, Lem explains what causes this, but Krzystek doesn’t. The question about the difficult-to-explain sounds hangs over the characters and viewers, immersing the former in a state of tension and awkwardness, and prompting the latter to ponder the meaning of the creaking floor in Gregory’s apartment. It’s a brilliant move by the director, whose intentions are only understood by those who have read the book. The explanation of the noises there is trivial, so maybe the phenomenon of the shifting corpses can be logically explained, even if no one has yet figured it out.

The Investigation Stanislaw Lem Waldemar Krzystek

Sciss (played by Mariusz Benoit) also appears as an eccentric and haughty scientist in this version, and Gregory suspects him of complicity in the crime as well. However, the collision course they take is more due to the helplessness of the policeman than the behavior of the doctor suggesting nefarious intentions. Gregory admits to his own incompetence from the very beginning, sensibly explaining to Sheppard what “psychological nonsense” emerges from the case. Bonaszewski has too penetrating and reflective a face to make his character a serviceable without imagination, as was the case with Borowski, but with Benoit’s portrayal of Sciss, everyone is entitled to develop complexes about their own intelligence. Thus, the attempt to uncover the mystery by the specialist in statistical phenomena is tinged with personal aversion, disdain, and even jealousy towards him. Because he is smarter, thinks in a completely different way than Gregory, and is confident in himself and his work. But at the same time, the investigation is interesting to Sciss as long as it is based on theory and confined to statistics, without delving into questions of the reason and manner of the phenomenon’s occurrence. The scientist is the complete opposite of the policeman, and therefore there can be no talk of any understanding between them.

Krzystek’s version of The Investigation is imbued with a wonderful atmosphere of horror, starting from the prologue itself, when the gravedigger and the local constable discover that the body lying in the coffin has moved during the night. Krzystek doesn’t shy away from retro stylization, placing the action in the decade when Lem’s novel debuted. Thanks to this, the taste of horror reminiscent of a Hammer film studio production is evident, even if the film doesn’t contain equally explicit scenes as Piestrak’s. The creator of Little Moscow compensates for this with a dense atmosphere (much credit to Zbigniew Karnecki’s unsettling music), so the questions posed by Lem in his book take on a real and dangerous shape. This enhances the suggestive ending, trying to reassure poor Gregory with a possible course of events so far. However, it triggers our imagination, frightening with the vision of madness as incomprehensible as the animated corpses; in Lem’s version, this hypothesis cuts off the investigation, while Krzystek doesn’t stop multiplying doubts. His The Investigation is the work of a man who supplemented the plot of the literary original with his own reflections and theories.